years under president van buren. but he never aspired to higher things the way he had before after president jackson. >> speaking of jefferson, the snowstorm in august. thanks so much. >> thank you. next in an interview recorded at the university of pennsylvania at philadelphia mary francis berry shares her stories about serving on the united states commission on civil rights. set ultimate by president eisenhower in 1957. this is about a half an hour. on your screen now on booktv is a well known face for c-span viewers. that's mary francis berry. professor at the university of pennsylvania. she's also the author of several books. at the university of pennsylvania today to talk to her about this book.
"and justice for all." "and justice for all: the united states commission on civil rights and the continuing struggle for freedom in america" mary francis berry, when did the u.s. civil rights commission begin and why? >> well, it started in 1957. president eisenhower had a lot of discussions with secretary of state about the way the united states was seen around the world because a lot of the racism that was going on that people would hear about and read about. and the fact that there seemed to be a lot of episodes that kept happening whether it was lynching or some kind of discrimination that took place in the country. so the idea was eisenhower -- said he was going to ask congress to set up a civil rights commission which was put the sacks on top of the table. i'm told by one of the people who was at the meeting with he slammed at table and said they're going put the sacks on
top of the table. and commissions as we know, who do policy, sometimes set up because there's a tough problem and people don't want to do anything about it. they get a report and it goes away. so but this commission was supposed to put the facts on top of the table. and the future would depend on what it found out. how aggressive it was, and what the public thought about what they were doing. >> it was initially set up as relatively a temporary commission. >> right. it was temp prior and a deal with -- and it came the year before the little rock crisis. and all kinds of ferment going on in the country. and eisenhower -- it was to defuse part of the crisis, and present it better immafnlgt country to the world and if on the way they could recommend solutions that would be great. >> so who made up the first commission? who was the chair. >> the first commission, the idea to put people on there who would be respected especially
the chairman. is somebody who people think the person's objective. and put the chairman who was the president of michigan state university over the . >> a white man? >> yes. he was made the president of it. they had one black member a guy named wilkinss who was assistant secretary of labor. and they thought that he was sort of moderate person. i read all the white house files. i didn't just serve on the commission. since i'm a historian i got all the files from the president, the white houses and read all that stuff so i could see what they were saying inside about twhairp doing, and so the one lone black guy who was an adviser in th eisenhower white house who was? there to tell them names of people -- he said won't get in trouble. but the rest of the folks on there, there were a professor they named father ted from notre
dame an important figure. it had important people to start off with. >> when if you serve as chair of the civil rights commission? >> i came to the civil rights commission in 1980 after having served in the carter administration. running federal education programs and having been chancellor at the university of colorado-bolder. people say i was the first women to be head of a major research university. but any case, i came and i had big fights with ronald reagan because even though i was just a commissioner, i along with one of my latino woman the only other minority on the commission babeu, we would dissent whatever the commission tried to do something that was terrible. so we had some problems. and we had the excitement. but i was on there and i went through all those fights.
finally it was clip who made me the chair of the commission. >> but president carter appointed me. >> carter appointed me when i left his education running education. he got a new department of education. he appointed me to the commission. >> at what point did it become clare that the u.s. civil rights commission would become a permanent agency? >> after the first year when the reports they did what the commission did was instead of sitting down and saying okay we're hear to save face and -- they did some hearings, the major power of the commission has and i point it out in the book. to me it's the most important thing about the commission. what it does what it's supposed to do. it will go out and listen to people that nobody else will listen to. problems that civil rights problem that people had. they could not get anyone to pay attention. not just local people but the federal government. they would write letters, they would do all kinds of things. nobody would pay any attention. the civil rights commission
decided that first year they would discipline the people and see what they had to say. that the power of the statute to subpoena anyone. eisenhower said the reason why i want to get it passed by congress instead of issuing the executive order is because my attorney general tells me that's the only way they can subpoena anybody. and given what the problems are, some people may not want to come to testify. they commissioned most important power was subpoena. they went in the south and looked all over the place to see what the problems were. they made recommendations that were controversial but seemed to make sense, so after they had been there for eye while, it was clear they needed to be reauthorized and needed to be continued to work on the issues. then, of course, the little rock crisis happened and the whole civil rights movement started to heat up. it was clear there was a need. then the commission separated next few years, figuring out what to recommend to the government to bring to fruition
what the people were protesting about in the streets. in other words, people were protesting and 0 going to jail in the civil rights movement. what they did is to make recommendation what legislation would look like that might do something to help only the problems. >> professor berry, just to go back where all the members originally appointed by president eisenhower. >> the members were appointed by him and confirmed by the senate. in those days you had to be confirmed by the senate. it was bipartisan. several people were democrat and some were republicans. >> now, going back to mr. wilkinss also, any relation to academic roger wilkins of today? >> no. he's related to -- it's another family. and my dear friend roger is not related to that family. that family is related to a professor at harvard who is wilkins. it's chicago, illinois republican wilkins as opposed to
democrat. >> how did the commission change when the kennedy administration came in with the johnson administration came in? >> when the kennedy administration came in, i called that chapter something about being with friends among friends. because the commissioners were all saying to themselves, these are good solid democrats who are liberals, and they're doing to do everything we say needs to be done. now is the time to get it all done. they didn't know that behind the scenes bobby kennedy, i called him bad bobby then not the good he became later by experience. they were all making fun of the commission. they keep recommend the stuff and they think we're going do this? it wasn't they were hostile to civil rights. the committee and congress were controlled by democrats from the south and who were racist. he's in mississippi and -- they
were the people who controlled the jew judiciary committee and everything that happened and they controlled judicial appointment. kennedy didn't want to offend them. instead of a friendly reception they thought they would. they would be listened to but the administration would try to -- they would take their recommendations and try to incorporate them later on in legislation the civil rights movement forced them to. until the civil rights movement forced them to. they would be blight and say and write notes back and forth to themselves these people think they're going to do this. we're not going this. they found out and tried to cooperate with the administration. they found out that the independence that was put in to the law when they were set up, which made them independent voice of civil rights was really important. and they shouldn't try to, friendly with some particular administration. their job was to be a watchdog,
as -- be a watchdog over what the administration was doing. and they learned that and then johnson -- and kennedy was assassinated and johnson was a procivil rights president because of the civil rights movement. what they proposed as legislation in the civil rights act of '64 and '65. >> at what point did you become aware of the civil rights commission? >> i became aware of them when i was in a graduate program at university. someone came to me, i forget who, and asked me if i would work on a project they had. they used to hire consult assistants. >> is it the '60s? '0*eu7 z? >> yes. i used their report because of the reports they did. they were very good reports and some of the historical research that i did. so i was very much aware of them. finally, they -- by the time that roe v. wade was decided
if i would write something as a history abortion rights for them. and how that plays out and what the history back to england and so on. and i did a report for them. >> what is your history? where are you from. >> nashville, tennessee. i group in nashville and my family and relatives are all still there. i went to pearl high school, and i went to howard university. i graduated and went to the university of michigan. >> law school? >> first the history department write got a ph.d. then i went law school. i wanted to do legal history. those days you had to get both degrees. you couldn't get them at the same time. now you can. i had to do one then the other. then . >> did you come north to graduate school on purpose? >> i came to howard, yes, i came on purpose. absolutely. >> why? >> i went to segregated schools
in nashville growing up. pearl high was a segregated high from north high negroes as we were called in that day. i went howard and went when i went to michigan i was one of the first students who was black in the ph.d. program. when i got there. the head of graduate studies said to me, he was surprised to see me. i found out what they meant. he told me there was one time a negro came through here years ago. he didn't graduate. that's what he told me. [laughter] so i was there for the department. i was sent there by michael fess l howard who wanted know work with a particular professor there in the institution. >> mary francis berry, who are your parents? >> poor folk. my mother and my father left us early. he was one of the loss, stole, or strayed men. and my mother raised us.
spent some time in an or fan inch when i was an infant. that's one of my earliest memory then my mother raised us on her own. in an extended family my generation was the first to go to college. my mother graduated from the eighth grade. she's a heck of a lot smarter than i am. she wanted to go to high school but there was no high school to go to at that time. but she very much wanted us to get educate. >> when did you remember being interested in public policy and service in government? following the news? >> when i started doing legal history at michigan, and started reading all the legal history stuff and did a dissertation about the draft enacted during the civil wrar, -- war first national draft act within i
became -- from reading drowments and i read and the materials and so generated by government agencies and being in legal history and in the law, i got very concerned about how power is exercised, and whether there's a voice for people who are not in power. how do get -- how do the powerless get somebody to listen, which is what i love about the commission. i was insisting on listening to people. you know, when you go to san antonio, texas, and it was the first hearing the commission had held on latinos they write about in the book. they are all of these will tones -- latinos who nobody ever listen to the them. there were kids kicked out of school because they were spoke spanish. they were told it was a dirty language. there was all these people. the education was awful the conditions were awful. we listened to them. or when you goo and read about the guy in the book, the oldest crimes who was run over a by car
in 1951 and the commission 1961 and the commission reasoned -- listened to him because the oldest crime was a korea war veteran. and the sheriff stopped the car and shot him. for no reason and later came out he shot him because he was black and wanted to shot somebody. quite was paralyzed and he was a veteran. the va didn't want to give him a pension hep must have been creating trouble because the sheriff shot him. it was his fault. he asked everybody to help him. all the government agencies. nobody would ask him. he asked the civil rights commission sent investigators to find out what was going on. they ended up being able to get him his pension. i met his family. the oldest crimes dissen dent. he never told them how this happened to him. and they were like, oh my
goodness. it was a commission that did it. and so i think that what i was interested in -- what i'm still interested in is there has to be some way to have a voice for people where they can go somewhere and somebody will listen to what they have to say. >> have there been efforts over the years particularly by congress or maybe a particular phot disband the commission? >> yes, ronald reagan tried do that. he came in to office and it amazes me. reagan has become one of my most beloved presidents in the polls and everything. people forget some of the stuff that happened. and he wanted to change the direction of civil rights. he wanted to make sure that the civil rights was weren't enforced the way they were supposed to be enforced. he decided that he would first thing they decided to do is replace the commissioners. because the commission was standing up and watchdogging measure and they didn't want
anybody watchdogging them he said we'll change the member. and we got in to a big fight. when they got to me and got ready to change me. i sued them. i sued them and i won the lawsuit, the court said that the commission is supposed to be as father put it, a watchdog. and i said it should be a watchdog and not a lap dog for the administration. so that they succeeded though in changing the direction of the commission. and even though later we were able to get some traction during my time there, we did things like bush v. gore. the going out of the 2000 election with the voter suppression. talk about voter suppression. the commission hasn't ever been the same since that time. he reagan in a sense succeed in making it a body that couldn't listen to ordinary people or that wouldn't listen to ordinary people. and was not independent and they kept trying -- the commissioners
appointed felt they should endorse whatever the administration said. i said if you're going to do that, they have cabinet officers and political appointee other the government to do that. your job is to monitor them and to tell the public what they're doing. and to make suggestions for how things should be improved. right now in the most recent election, all the voters suppression activity that took place all across the country and the big debate about it, the civil rights commission should have been at the center of the debate based on the history, experience with voting, and voting rights suppression and making recommendations. it was nowhere to be seen. and so what it is done is subverted the mission it was supposed to have. an what it needs to happen, it needs to be converted by the congress in to another kind of body or something. or they ought to get rid of it. that's my opinion. >>. >> with a is current makeup of the u.s. mission?
>> it's bipartisan but the problem is . >> five mens? >> eight members. the commission has eight members. four and four. no more than four for the same political party. they have decided to play with the designation. when they want to appoint somebody and there are already four. they have them change their party. [laughter] or change the, you know, something and then they appoint them anyway. but it has become the way the structure of it is now because of what reagan did to it, it is hard to get a majority to do anything constructive and the people who are appointed, unlike in the old days, back in '57 and '60 and so are on are not supposed to be people objective, independent-minded for them this is not a job and who are widely respected across the country and who will be aggressive and not see themselves as catering to their own political party. >> who is the current chairman? >> i have no idea.
see, that shows how much it's doing. i have no idea who is the chairman of the commission. i have no idea what it's doing. i have haven't seen anything it's done. it's been at least since i left, i have no idea what they're doing. >> you left in 2004? why did you leave? >> i left because my term was going to be up in january. this was december of 2004, and when bush got reelected, then i didn't see any sense of staying around for that. i was not planning to stay and i didn't want him to appoint me. i'm sure he wouldn't have appointed me. that's why i left. >> so the president gets to appoint all -- four. >> four. >> and what the congress -- the majority leader? >> and the result of what president reagan and his professor and trying to fire us and our winning the lawsuit did congress passed a comprise as they do on the things, and the comprise expanded the commission from six to eight no more than
four of one party. the congress gets to appoint four, the president gets to appoint four. there's no conformation. it used to be you had to be confirmed bit senate. i was confirm bid the senate and therefore the public had a chance to see who was being appointed and weigh in if they felt like it. now they don't. it's considered to be a patronage somebody wants to appoint somebody. >> did you have any relationship with ronald reagan with republicans senator at the time you served jesse? >> jesse used to send me birthday cards. he and stromb thur monoused to send them all the time. ronald reagan, the only interaction i with him at the kennedy center in the president's box where a member of congress there invited me. he seemed like a affable,
personal guy, i think sunny personality and all the rest, but the most amusing thing for me about ronald reagan is that he told the press when he fired me and the press asked him why. a reporter came back and told me he said i fired because she serves at my pleasure and she's not giving any pleasure. and the prez got a got a big laugh out of that one. >> what was your reaction? >> that was almost as bad as the guy in the bush administration in the justice department supposedly writing voting rights he liked his coffee like mary francis berry black and bitter. i serve in his pleasure but i'm not giving him very much pleasure. and that was brought in to evidence in the court when i sued reagan for firing me in the courts said, you know, that among other things the president doesn't fire people who are in an independent peach who are
watchdogging him because they're not giving him pleasure. [laughter] you're not suppose to be giving him pleasure. you're supposed to be monitoring what he does. i found him an affable person. a nice guy to have a beer with. >> what are most proud of your service on the civil rights commission? >> i thought you were going to ask me what i was most proud of period. a lot of things, but beinged in the antiapart -- appar tight movement. i'm proud of the hearings question in florida on the 2000 election. because we heard, again, from people that nobody would listen to and we found out there were thousands of people who were registered to vote who were legal voters, and they just wouldn't let them vote. it was that simple. i never will forget the minister who came in, and said that when he went down vote with his
family they told him that he was a convicted felon and he couldn't vote. he said, that's not true, the only time i've ever been to the court house when i was testifying for somebody in a case they asked me to testify in. i voted here in the same precinct last anytime. why are you telling me i'm a convicting felony in front of his family and friends and neighbors. they said you have to get out of here. you're a felon. it turns out he wasn't a felon. he wasn't convicted of anything. they had rigged up the information on voters and purged voter list and anybody who had a name that was similar to somebody else's name they said they were felonies. and they there were thousand of people in that position. i'm very proud of the hearings we did on that. but you can't end voter sup progs just -- suppression just by doing that. we got the help america vote ability passed.
this time around the commission didn't followup on what was done before. we have instants of voter suppression in this country. >> what are you do here at the university of pennsylvania? >> i teach history of american law here at penn. and i teach in course to anybody who wants to take it in the history of american law from the english period to after reconstruction and reconstruction to the present and i teach a seminar when which i call "history of law in social change" about it's topic i'm interested in. it's one of those things where i do what i'm interested in. [laughter] i pick topics that are have currency but have history and to show how the history and ask the question. does history have any place in the making of law and policy? the answer is it does. what is the place that it has and should it have it? this semester we're doing issues
like lgbt rights, education, and whole debate over education reform. whether it works and students read materials on all sides of the issues, and then we discuss it. >> do you miss washington? >> i miss the little bit of power you have when you're in government office. because no matter how small the agency and no matter how minuscule the power. when people have problems, you can sometimes help them. and as far as the commission is concerned, i miss being able to bring people who no one heard from and would listen to. and to listen what they have to say. >> this is your third, fourth book? >> no. i have written more books than. geez, i mean, i have written probably nine or ten books. >> is there another one coming? >> i'm working on now. >> the topic? >> the topic is what does it
mean to -- voter fraud. i found some documents from a place down in louisiana of all places, where they seem to have had a consistent record of voter fraud all the way from the 19th century until now. it's not -- it's bipartisan. and so i was given some records from the voter fraud that goes down there that nobody else has. and so i've been reading them so this book will be about if you want to see voter suppression, here is voter suppression. >> when can we expect that book? >> probably in the next year. >> mary francis berry, when you hear the term "post racial" what do you think? >> i think somebody is an idiot. i think that there was a big debate about this when obama was selected by the democrats and
sort of died down now. but the idea is that we are beyond noticing or thinking about issues of race. i guess that's what that means. and obviously we aren't. i mean, there are too many things that happen. even the presence of president obama in the white house and his family races racial questions for some people. so that while we may be on the way some day to be post racial, i think it's fair to say we're not now. >> do you have a relationship with barack obama at all? >> not really, no. >> "and justice for all," by mary francis berry. it's her most recent book. professor here at the university of pennsylvania. former chairwoman of the u.s. commission on civil rights. here's a history of the u.s. commission on civil rights. marrymary francis berry on